The Best Vs. The Worst by Mackenzie Wilson

#5 Balancing Just Culture and Accountability: How do you make it fair?

by Mackenzie Wilson / Based on the following SafeConnection panels

How do companies strike a fair balance between the fact that humans make mistakes and the need to make people accountable for workplace safety? SafeStart author Larry Wilson put this critical safety culture question to SafeConnection Expert Panels.

Topic context from SafeStart’s Larry Wilson: “This subject is very near and dear to my heart. We all make mistakes – we’re human – so we don’t want to blame people for every single slip, but we also don’t want to live in a world where no one is accountable for their safety.”

Expert view:To help overcome the challenge of doing all this, many companies have adopted “lifesaving” or “golden” rules that have a zero-tolerance component to them. Have Golden Rules worked? And how can this kind of zero-tolerance policy be improved?

Key insight from SafeStart: “I think a bit of the importance of the why gets forgotten or somehow becomes less prominent than the discipline aspect – people want to know the consequences and get that clear as opposed to the ‘why’ and sticking that in their head, like how important it is not to walk between rail cars, LOTO, confined space entry,” says Larry Wilson on the subject of safety practices. “For all of those lifesaving things the ‘why’ behind them is more important than the disciplinary measures that will happen after.”

Flipping the perspective: The panels shared a universal experience that poor outcomes often have systemic roots, which means that leaders can make a difference. “Making a rational, consistent, fact-based decision…brings coherency to the organisation”, noted Alex Carnevale (President, Dynacast International):

Hidden Rules can be another source of consequential violations:

Once leadership has moved beyond the big-stick approach and scrutinised their systems for hidden rules or ambiguity, the emphasis for injury reduction moves to communicating the underlying importance of safety rules:

Here, as in so many other areas of life and good business, it is a question of balance:

Take Aways

  • For optimal workplace safety culture, the big-stick approach is not enough.
  • Analyse: get to the why of human error and problematic safety behaviour.
  • Is the root in fact systemic? Look for 'hidden rules' or linguistic ambiguity.
  • Bear in mind: different approaches for different cohorts.
  • Leadership: always model the safety behaviour you want to encourage.
  • Balance, as always, is the key! Accountability throughout brings results.
¹ Based on SafeConnection panels on North America, Europe, The Middle East, India and Asia.
² All opinions expressed in here are purely those of the panelists. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of SafeStart and the panelists’ companies.
³ For more information about the SafeConnection Expert Panels and to watch past or current sessions, please visit

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